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With school starting, we’ve noticed the pace of our lives changing. While the summer had its own frenetic moments, the pace seemed lighter and less intense. Now, we’re thinking about carpools, after-school activities, and a myriad of other time commitments from birthday parties to PTA meetings.

Add to this, multiple children with their own food likes and dislikes which sometimes feel like they change like the wind. Yet, as the chief cook in our house, a strong principle of mine is not to become a short order cook and prepare a different meal for each member of our family.

All this means that dinners are about to get a lot more stressful.

A key principle of being an innovative parent is to think about your principles, i.e. what is important to you. By identifying these priorities, we can focus our ideas for solutions more strategically, rather than throwing ideas at the proverbial dartboard to see what sticks. As we discussed this as a couple, and later as a family, I knew that I wanted a few things to happen:

  • Spend less time in the kitchen during the week
  • Introduce our kids to new foods and cuisines.
  • Minimize the number of individualized meals that I needed to prepare and serve
  • Build lifelong healthy eating habits
  • Bring my kids into the meal planning and prep process

Then, it was time to start dreaming a little bit. What could be or might be in the future? We asked a lot of what if and how might we questions and generated a list of ideas that might facilitate smoother meals from simplifying our menu to putting a child in charge of a different night of the week.

Right now, we have an interesting experiment underway based upon each of these previous steps. It began by assigning a theme to each day of the week (e.g. meatless Monday, pasta/pizza Tuesday) and designating one day a week for leftovers (many of our leftovers from dinner get turned into lunches for the adults). Then, in a round robin fashion with the kids, we asked each of them for suggestions for meals for each theme until we had a number of options to work with. We also asked them for side dishes to ensure that meals included a protein, vegetables, and the appropriate amount of carbohydrates.

We took all of those ideas and put them into this template which we set up to help you plan your own ideas and menus. We have included some of the ideas that we came up with. In order to get full functionality, be sure to save a copy of the document.

The next step was to transfer the meal ideas to our shared Google calendar (yes, we have a Google calendar just for meal planning). At least for this first round, I’ve decided to set up three weeks worth of meals and repeat them each twice, using the recurring event option in the Google calendar settings, so I’ve got six weeks of meals planned in advance!

From there, I’ve been able to create cooking tasks and shopping lists to make sure that everything gets purchased and prepared (we use Wunderlist for this – a shared account allows us to see each list). For those dishes that can be made in advance and frozen (e.g. like Sloppy Joe’s), I’m making enough for two meals, so that I’m reducing time in the kitchen later on.

We’re about two weeks into the experiment and it’s feeling pretty positive, so far. This is an iterative process, so we’ll dive back into the innovative parenting cycle as we go to make observations (e.g. are the kids actually eating the meals that they suggested?).